04/02/2010 12:00AM

Sadler looks for next plateau

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Benoit & Associates
Sidney's Candy, winning the San Felipe, seeks his third straight win Saturday in the Santa Anita Derby.

John Sadler finally caught "The Hurt Locker" on video not long ago and took it very much to heart. Not the parts about disarming IEDs in a hostile Iraqi landscape or holding a bead on a distant sniper for hours on end beneath a withering desert sun. The job of a Thoroughbred trainer can be challenging, but it's rarely lethal.

No, what hit home with Sadler was a quiet scene with the protagonist soldier back home stateside, submitting to the mundane task of grocery shopping while feeling utterly lost and completely out of place.

"One minute he's staring at chicken tenders in the meat section, and the next he's back in Iraq, disarming bombs and happy to be there," Sadler said, shaking his head. "It made me wonder if I could ever walk away from my job."

A film like "The Hurt Locker," great in so many ways, trips switches in the viewer that are rarely apparent or predictable. In Sadler's case, he was nudged by the vivid reality that he has been a public trainer of Thoroughbreds for 31 of his 53 years, a commitment that already could be defined as lifelong.

Sadler describes himself as "in the prime" of his career and has the stats to back it up. In 2008 his stable won a lifetime high of $7.3 million, and 2009's win total of 132 was a personal best. However, he has yet to win a Breeders' Cup race or a Triple Crown event, touchstones that tend to define the upper reaches of achievement in the sport, and he is still without such signature West Coast trophy races such as the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, or Pacific Classic.

Sadler's profile could change dramatically this spring if Sidney's Candy runs to his increasingly impressive form Saturday in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby. He is a chestnut son of Candy Ride named for the late husband of his breeder and owner, Jenny Craig, and he has already won the San Vicente and San Felipe at Santa Anita in 2010. As far as Sadler is concerned, such behavior is completely consistent with the 2-year-old version of Sidney's Candy, who set a Del Mar track record for 5 1/2 furlongs last summer before going to the sidelines with a sore shin.

"With some of these horses, you watch for the 'wow' factor," Sadler said last week. "Sidney's Candy had it. Two-year-olds just don't set track records, even if it's at a distance that's not used much."

If Sidney's Candy makes it all the way to Louisville, Sadler will be competing in the Derby for the second time. In 1993, he spent a week flying below the Churchill Downs radar with Allen Paulson's Corby, a son of Dahar who also won the San Felipe to earn a Derby shot.

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"I remember everything about it," Sadler said. "The Paulsons spent most of the time in Lexington, so I was kind of alone. And things didn't go all that well. The colt was having a few problems - not the kind that knocked him out, but you had to work around - so it was not ideal."

With all that, Corby still ran sixth of 19 and gave Sadler a thrill by duelling for the lead as the field hit the head of the Derby stretch. He was beaten about six lengths by Sea Hero.

Sadler is not concerned about his lack of Derby experience. In fact, he is amusingly encouraged by recent trends. Seven of the last 10 Derby-winning trainers were running a horse in the race for the first time.

"John Shirreffs, Barclay Tagg, Neil Drysdale, Rick Dutrow - they're all good trainers and have been for a while," Sadler said, ticking off a few of the successful Derby rookies (Michael Matz, John Servis and Chip Woolley were the others). "The nice conclusion would be that you don't have to be one of the mega-trainers to win it."

Sadler won't fret if a Derby doesn't happen this year or next. As noted, he is in for the long haul. He finds solace in the great things trainers such as Allen Jerkens, Ron McAnally, Robert Wheeler, Bobby Frankel and John Nerud achieved without the benefit of a Derby victory, or that Charlie Whittingham waited until he was 73 to win his.

"I don't really think it means that much anymore if you haven't won it, at least inside the game," Sadler said. "Anyway, while I was back in Florida last week for the sales, there was one thing that happened that made my whole trip to Miami. When I saw Allen Jerkens, he says to me, 'I like watching you on TV.' "

Still, Sadler is mindful of the impact the Kentucky Derby has on his world, perceived as greater now than ever before. Sidney's Candy is only the best of several colts who began the season as prospects in Sadler's care. Another, Dave in Dixie, is scheduled to run in the $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne on the same day as the Santa Anita Derby.

"The Kentucky Derby is what's driving the business," Sadler said. "In terms of buying horses, every owner wants you to go after that Derby horse, to a large degree. Where I want to differentiate myself is to make sure that if a horse doesn't make that road, you still come out of it with a nice horse for the rest of his career."

With Sadler in the mix, the Derby media would get to know an articulate, amiable horseman who will never tell you more than he intends but might occasionally let slip a grain of unvarnished information. Sadler is worldly enough to have friends and family in a broad variety of professions and lifestyles and engagingly conversant in just about any wrinkle of modern culture, from politics to Lady Gaga.

He is, however, a willing and admitted prisoner of the Thoroughbred racing business, a condition that manifests itself in that distracted, faraway look trainers get when one of the dozens of problems back at the barn bubbles up through the consciousness. Sadler, like so many of his media-friendly colleagues, can pretend he is part of the civilian world in polite word and occasional pleasantry. But there is always something else. Forever something else.

"The story I've always loved was the one about Charlie Whittingham on a cruise, and how he was ready to jump ship and swim back to shore after a couple of days," Sadler said. "The usual 'vacation' for me is three days, but everyone knows I'll probably come home a day early."

This in itself does not make Sadler unusual. Nor does his background riding show horses as a teenager, nor his flirtation with a college education, nor his apprenticeship with top horsemen before hanging his own shingle at age 22. Sadler, though, has combined these elements to craft a steady, insistent climb through the ranks of California's leading horsemen, to a point where, in the last three seasons, he has made a home near the top in races and money won out West, winning meet titles at every major stop.

With the help of assistant Larry Benavidez and full barns at both Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, Sadler has a vertically integrated stable with owners and inventory that fit every corner of the condition books. Among Southern California-based trainers in 2009, only Doug O'Neill had more starters than Sadler's 637.

At the top end, the Sadler shedrows were home last year to stakes winners Evita Argentina, Belmont Cat, Alpha Kitten, Black Mamba, Oil Man, Coco Belle, Tribal Justice, Red Arrow, Dawn After Dawn, Noble Court, and Third Dawn. At the other end of the spectrum, maiden claimers and starter allowance types keep things real.

"When I first started out, I remember I had eight stalls and needed two more, I think for a couple of maidens," Sadler said. "So I walked into Mr. Kilroe's office to ask for them."

This would be Frank E. "Jimmy" Kilroe, the racing executive credited for elevating the class of the sport in California.

"He said, 'John, remember this. We want you to have a balanced stable,' " Sadler said. "His idea was that you needed that variety, and you needed winners to come out of a lot of those stalls. I've always remembered that, along with Whittingham telling me, 'Don't be a private trainer.' "

Sadler is so public that it is difficult to identify him with a patron as a major backer, although brothers Gary and Cecil Barber are among his most energetic, along with Ike and Dawn Thrash, Ann and Jerry Moss, Teddy Aroney, Richard Templer, Lee and Susan Searing, Tom Mankiwicz, and Herb and Don Alpert, as well as Jenny Craig.

Those major patrons did not budge when the Sadler stable was hit with a cluster of steroid positives that made headlines in the summer of 2008. They occurred during a transition period in California medication rules when a ban on steroids was being phased in. His barn was raided, and he was warned but never officially cited or penalized, since the new rules had yet to take full effect.

As a result of the controversy, Sadler stepped down as president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers and took his lumps in the media and from skeptical colleagues. What to that point had been a generally respected reputation needed a certain amount of rehabilitation.

"I'll tell you what my rehabilitation was," Sadler said. "What would they have said if I'd have gone to the next meet and done horribly? Clearly, my rehabilitation was in my results. After that Del Mar, we won the Oak Tree meet, then last year we won three of the five major meets."

The first time Sadler was noticed outside his immediate circle was in the spring and early summer of 1986, when he was training a bright gray 3-year-old filly named Melair. She was a flashy thing, fast as the wind, owned by a pair of retired Southern California schoolteachers, Bea Rous and Marianne Millard, who bred her in their spacious backyard.

Melair's career lasted 72 days, but it was an unforgettable 72 days, featuring five starts and five wins, capped by a victory over subsequent 3-year-old male champion Snow Chief in the Silver Screen Handicap at Hollywood Park on the fifth of July. Later that month, Sadler turned 30. He was asked if the brief, heady run with Melair was too much, too soon for a trainer so fresh out of his wrapping. After all, she was rated second only to champion Tiffany Lass among her division at year's end. Sadler laughed.

"No, no," he replied. "It was just fine. And you need that to happen, at any time."

It wasn't as if he didn't know a good one when he saw one. While working the backstretch as an assistant to Dr. Jack Robbins, the noted vet, Sadler got an inside look at the operations of trainers like Charlie Whittingham, Bob Wheeler, Bobby Frankel, Buster Millerick and Ron McAnally.

"He made it pretty clear that training horses was what he wanted to do," said Robbins, president of the Oak Tree Racing Association. "Although he did complain about the pay, and the fact that I had him wash my car."

Such is the life of any apprentice. Or, at least, it should be. While attending high school in nearby Pasadena, Sadler had worked in the trenches for trainer Tom Pratt, whose West Coast stable was known for its high-profile owners. The Robbins experience followed, after which Sadler went to work for Dave Hofmans and then Eddie Gregson, trainers whose hallmark was quality over quantity.

Sadler also paid close attention. He was surrounded by master craftsmen.

"We had some really great trainers out here," Sadler said. "And they were recognized as such. I don't know if that was Kilroe making sure the right guys were here during his era or what, but there were some really great guys to watch and learn from - Whittingham, Wheeler, Joe Manzi. They were guys of tremendous character, and a work ethic you could only admire.

"Whenever I have a horrible day, people ask, 'How do you do it?' I tell them I have no choice," he said. "I've got to get up the next day and go back to work. That's the ethic those guys embodied."

After Melair, Sadler spent a good portion of his rising career overcoming the convenient rap that he was nothing more than a trainer of sprinters. This was a difficult point to get across, considering the incredible string of world class speedballs that issued from his barn.

Melair was followed in no particular order by such major stakes winners as Olympic Prospect, Frost Free, Three Peat, Track Gal, Christmas Boy, Ceeband, Cost of Freedom and Dearest Trickski. Neither did it help that Sadler won the first match race in the history of Santa Anita Park in 1991 with Valiant Pete, who beat a champion quarter horse going half a mile, or that the biggest win of his career came in Dubai's signature sprint event, the Golden Shaheen, in 2004 with Our New Recruit.

Sadler shrugged it off and answered by winning respected route races like the Vanity, the Santa Margarita, the American Handicap, the Eddie Read, the Sunset Handicap, the Del Mar Derby, the La Canada, and a whole batch of serious grass events with the long-winded New Zealand mare Black Mamba.

During the current Santa Anita meet, Sadler has picked up where he left off at the end of last season. Entering the week, he held a 35-26 lead over Bob Baffert in the local standings. In February, Sadler also began another term as president of the CTT, which probably qualifies him as a glutton for punishment. The problems facing his fellow trainers are myriad, with the loudest seeming to be the issue of California's synthetic racing surfaces.

"That's the least important of the things we face," Sadler insisted. "You've got to start with the business model, the way ADW is set up, with the horsemen and the host track not getting their fair share. After that there's the ongoing issue of workmen's comp, and health care.

"Some of those things were headed the wrong way even before the economy turned, and were exacerbated by the economy," he said. "California still has a great product, and proves it regularly when our horses travel to different tracks and win. But clearly, we have to change the culture.

"I've made it very clear that I'm there to help set our trainers organization on the right course, " Sadler added. "Politics is not my passion. My passion is training horses."

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* Plus video analysis of the weekend's biggest stakes